Judging the Southwest Regional Barista Competition, or How I Learned To Live With Abdominal Cramping

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Photo via LAist

This past weekend I had the supreme joy of judging the Southwest Regional Barista Championship, which saw baristas from California, Hawaii, Arizona, Colorado descend on Hollywood all with the hopes of advancing on to the U.S. Championships. Some of you may have read my tortured account of getting certification for this event, and I can assure you that a) training was much more difficult than judging, and b) my intestinal tract has finally returned to normal.

This was no easy task. I was in a world of pain Thursday night after having spent all afternoon sipping espressos and cappuccinos. Quite frankly, by the time Friday morning rolled around, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge of enduring more caffeinated beverages. Luckily, being the intrepid blogger that I am, I persevered. A full account of my experience after the jump…Things started off on a hazy note. Apparently I was slated to judge three baristas Friday morning, but there was a communications snafu, and I didn’t wind up getting to the competition until 2 PM. This was for the best as I was still reeling from abdominal cramps Friday morning. The mere idea of espresso was revolting to me. By the afternoon, I was significantly better, but I couldn’t say I was terribly excited about jumping right back into the jaws of the monster. Luckily, I only had one barista to take on.

Here’s the way it worked. All the judges would march out (with smiles; so as not to scare the poor barista) and take a seat at a table. The barista would then have to serve each of the four sensory judges (of which I was one) one espresso, one cappuccino, and one signature drink. The signature drink could be anything — it was like the freestyle portion of the event. This was where baristas could express their creativity. It was both the most exciting and scary portion of the program. My only fear was being stuck with some strawberry espresso concoction. For those of you who might not be aware, I have this enormous distaste for berries. Basically, they make me want to throw up. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries — they are all heinous to me. Literally, the mere hint of an odor from them can turn my stomach.

As a judge, however, I needed to divorce myself from these biases. The specialty drink had to be judged on flavor balance, not whether we actually liked the ingredients. Surely I could do this, right? After all, I couldn’t be seen up there gagging and/or vomiting in front of the barista, my fellow judges, the media, or the sizable audience. That would just be embarrassing. Needless to say, between my berry apprehensions and my stomach cramping, I was a total mess.

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A judge’s table.

I am a professional though, and as a professional, I plastered a happy smile on my face and embraced the challenge. Besides, whatever anxiety I had paled compared to the nerves the baristas were feeling. “Jittery” is an understatement. These poor baristas get so nervous up there you just want to give them a hug and tell them it’s okay. My first and only barista on Friday was a jumble of nerves. Every espresso he placed on our saucers clattered loudly as if a subway car was perhaps charging through facility. He seemed to be doing okay, but then he spilled one of his cappuccinos. This was the equivalent of knocking your cake over in one of those Food Network competitions. The poor guy paused his speech, sighed/laughed briefly, and then forged ahead. He wasn’t the same after that. There was sweat, stuttering, and more trembling. It was awkward. Thankfully, his signature drink involved chocolate and no berries; so I was safe… for now.

After the presentation, we judges then went upstairs to a special room where we shared our scores with the head judge. The purpose of this is to make sure we’re all “calibrated.” If everyone thinks an espresso is merely average and I say very good, chances are I’m out of calibration. A head judge then asks you to plead your case and then suggests bringing the score up or down to match the group more effectively. In this way, the head judges have a lot of sway, but that’s okay because these guys are seasoned professionals and certainly know what they’re talking about. The entire process is an interesting balance between subjective scoring and group consensus.

Sadly for my first barista, he did not score tremendously well. And as I went into day two, I had high hopes for the three people I’d be judging. It’s not that I knew who they were or where they came from, but I kind of felt like the first guy I had seen was so nervous, the law of averages necessitated that my next judging experiences be resolutely amazing. Unfortunately, it don’t work that way in barista land, mmmkay?

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The first girl I saw was a sweet, jittery fawn who all but crumbled under the pressure. Watching her pour her cappuccinos was possibly one of the most harrowing experiences I had endured in quite some time. Remember that we judge things like balance, symmetry, and color contrast of foam — ephemeral qualities that most certainly do not benefit from shaky hands. And this girl’s hands were shaky. Her milk pitcher was rattling in one direction, the coffee cup in another. I’m not trying to rag on her but rather illustrate how intense it was for these baristas. As judges, we’re also told to give supportive smiles and eye contact whenever we can, and trust me, I was supporting the HELL out of this girl with my face, but you can only do so much.

In the end, however, none of this mattered because the barista went past her allotted fifteen minutes of presentation time (plus one minute of penalty time), ultimately earning her a big, fat DQ (and no, I don’t mean Dairy Queen; although, she deserved one after the hell she’d been through). I can happily note that her signature drink was a blood orange something or another involving a blow-torch. Once again, no berries. Safe!

Next up was a girl who eventually made it into the finals (but sadly didn’t place). Her name was Sara Peterson, and she did one hell of a job. This was what I was waiting for. Her presentation was engaging, fun, educational, well-stated, and relaxed. We learned about the beans she was using, why she chose them, and how it all tied into her life and world view. Plus, she seemed like she was actually having fun. Like most competitions, the best truly rise to the top, and it was evident right off the bat that she would be a contender. Her foams were the best I’d seen so far, and for that alone I was happy. You know, when you judge, you really do want to see the competitors excel. It’s rather thrilling, if I do say so myself.

Thankfully, Sara also stayed away from berries. I was now three for three with the signature drinks. Granted, she did use pineapple, which isn’t my favorite ingredient, but it was totally fine in the context. Now I only had one chef left to face. Would I emerge unscathed?

In short, yes.

My final barista had no berries. What she had instead was… LAMB.

Yes, we’d be having a signature lamb/espresso drink. It was so bizarre I couldn’t actually wait to try it. This is how crazy I am. I hate the universally beloved berry, and yet I’m enthused to drink a lamb/espresso smoothie.

Sadly for me, this wasn’t so much a signature drink as it was a pairing. The barista managed to cook four lamb chops for us in the span of about eight minutes and served them with a beverage including espresso and rosewater. The pairing felt a touch arbitrary, but let me tell you something: this girl could COOK. That lamb chop was so good, I wanted to eat the whole thing. She also served us a frozen lime curd popsicle with our cappuccino, and it was killing me that I couldn’t eat the whole thing (doing so would have looked mighty unprofessional). In the end, the barista didn’t earn high marks for her coffee, but she had us all buzzing about her food. Next time: I expect a lamb smoothie.

And with that, my tenure as a judge ended. As much as I had dreaded diving head first back into espresso craziness, the actual judging was totally fun. The unpredictable nature of it paired with the cheering audience and TV cameras really upped the stakes. Training was a bitch, but in the end it was worth it. Plus, I’m happy to report that my stomach is back to normal. A happy ending for everyone!

To find out more information about the event, check out the website here.

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